What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?
A stray cat is a lost or abandoned pet. A feral cat is the offspring of lost or abandoned pet cats or other feral cats who are not spayed or neutered.
Stray cats are used to being in contact with people and are tame (although may exhibit some fear), but feral cats are not accustomed to contact with people and are typically too fearful and wild to be handled.
Whereas stray cats may be reunited with their families or adopted into new homes, feral cats do not easily adapt or may never adapt to living as pets in close contact with people.
Where do feral cats come from?
Feral cat females can reproduce two to three times a year, and their kittens, if they survive, will become feral without early contact with people. In order to socialize a kitten, they must be handled at a young age – ideally prior to five weeks old. With each passing week it is less likely they can be properly socialized and become a family pet.
Where do feral cats live?
Feral cats typically live with a group of related cats known as a colony. The colony occupies and defends a specific territory where food (a restaurant dumpster, a person who feeds them) and shelter (beneath a porch, in an abandoned building) are available.
How do feral cats survive?
Feral cats are always struggling to find food and shelter. Many don’t survive. If they do survive, their lives aren’t easy without human caretakers.
Females may become pregnant as young as 4 to 5 months of age and may have 2 to 3 litters a year. Being pregnant so young and so often, and having and nursing kittens, is even more stressful on female cats who are struggling to survive. More than half of the kittens are likely to die.
Males who roam and fight to find mates and defend their territories may be injured and transmit diseases to one another through bite wounds.
Why doesn’t removing feral cats from an area reduce their numbers and nuisance behaviour?
There are many reasons why feral cat problems are rarely solved by efforts to trap and remove them.
Feral cats live at a certain location because the habitat is suitable for their survival and offers food and shelter. If the cats in any one colony are removed, feral cats from surrounding colonies move in to take advantage of the newly vacated habitat and start the cycle of reproduction and nuisance behaviour anew.
In addition, if all the cats in a colony are not trapped, then the ones left behind tend to have more kittens that survive to adulthood due to lack of competition for resources until the colony reaches its former population level.
Other factors which usually make removing feral cats ineffective include:
- the difficulty of catching all the cats in a colony
- the lack of animal control resources available to accomplish this task
- the unwillingness of volunteers to trap cats who face an uncertain fate upon capture
- the ongoing abandonment of unaltered domestic cats who can also repopulate a vacated territory
- the lack of cooperation of the cats’ caretakers—the only people who really know the cats’ numbers and patterns and who can control whether or not they’re hungry enough to enter a baited trap.
Trap and remove will only result in a temporary reduction in the numbers of feral cats in a given area.
Why don’t feeding bans work?
The logic behind bans against feeding feral cats is that if there is no food available, the cats will go away. This is not true.
Feral cats are territorial animals who can survive for weeks without food and will not easily or quickly leave their territory to search for new food sources. Instead, they tend to encroach closer into human habitations as they grow hungrier and more desperate.
Their malnourished condition will make them more susceptible to parasitic infestations, such as fleas, which they will spread into work places, garages, homes, etc., within their territory.
The cats will also continue to reproduce despite the effort to “starve them out,” resulting in the visible deaths of many kittens.
As a result, feeding bans, if enforced, tend to make the situation much worse, instead of improving it.
A second reason why feeding bans are rarely effective is that they are nearly impossible to enforce. Repeated experience has shown that people who care about the cats’ welfare will go to great lengths, risking their homes, jobs and even their liberty, to feed starving animals. Someone determined to feed the cats will usually succeed without being detected, no matter the threatened penalties.
Do people take care of feral cats? What do they do?
Many people see a homeless cat and start feeding the cat even though many communities have feeding bans meant to discourage feeding. Ideally, the person quickly does more to help the homeless cat:
- If the cat is tame, the person should take steps to find a permanent home for the cat.
- If the cat is feral, unapproachable and wary after several days of feeding, the person should find out if there are any groups in their community that are currently performing Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) .
What is Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR)?
Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) is a strategy for improving the lives of feral cats and reducing their numbers. At a minimum, identified feral cats are spayed or neutered so they can no longer reproduce, and are vaccinated against rabies. Dedicated caretakers feed and provide shelter for TNRed cats, monitor them for sickness and release them, if feral, or give them up for adoption, if tame.
Why can’t animal shelters rescue feral cats?
Animal shelters already care and try to find homes for thousands of lost, injured, abandoned and relinquished pet cats. Many do not have the resources to proactively trap and remove thousands of feral cats.
Animal shelters that receive complaint calls or calls of concern from the public may attempt to humanely trap and remove feral cats. The WHS can provide information to citizens interested in humanely trapping feral cats.
Feral cats brought to the shelter, especially those who cannot be identified as members of a known TNRed colony, are likely to be euthanized right away or after a mandatory holding period. It is difficult to safely care for a feral cat in a typical shelter cage, and it is very stressful for a feral cat.
Would it be better if feral cats were euthanized?
Some people feel sorry for feral cats because of their difficult and dangerous life. Others are annoyed by the cats’ behaviours and want the cats removed. But many people don’t feel that the cats should be euthanized. Even if there were enough people and money to remove and euthanize feral cats, other feral cats would move into the vacant territory to take advantage of the food source and shelter now made available. It’s an endless cycle.
The alternative is Trap, Neuter, Return. When feral cats are TNRed, their health improves because they no longer have kittens and fight over mates, and nuisance behaviours are greatly reduced or eliminated. The colony’s dedicated caretaker provides food, water and shelter, watches over the health of the cats and removes any newcomers for TNR (if feral) or adoption (if tame).
TNR improves the quality of life for existing colonies, prevents the birth of more cats, and reduces the number of cats over time. Additionally, many groups that provide resources for TNR have calculated that the costs associated with TNR are considerably less than those associated with removal, shelter care and euthanasia of feral cats.
How does TNR solve common complaints associated with feral cats?
- When feral cats are trapped, neutered and returned to their territory, they no longer reproduce.
- When the colony is then monitored by a caretaker who removes and/or TNRs any newly arrived cats, the population stabilizes and gradually declines over time.
- The cessation of sexual activity eliminates the noise associated with mating behaviour and dramatically reduces fighting and the noise it causes.
- Foul odours are greatly reduced as well because neutered male cats no longer produce testosterone which, when they are unaltered, mixes with their urine and causes the strong, pungent smell of their spraying.
- Neutered feral cats also roam much less and become less visible and less prone to injury from cars.
What can I do to help feral cats?
Helping feral cats can be very rewarding. There are many options for you to be involved.
If there is a colony of feral cats in your area that does not have a caretaker, you can become their caretaker. Feral cat caretakers practice Trap, Neuter, Return, feed, provide shelter and monitor the cats for any problems.
Check your municipality bylaws regarding the legalities of harbouring feral cats.